Dubai, not the US, could become the capital of driverless car technology.

The Best Place for Driverless Cars Is Not America. It's Dubai.

The Best Place for Driverless Cars Is Not America. It's Dubai.

Future Tense
The Citizen's Guide to the Future
May 2 2016 12:27 PM

The Best Place for Self-Driving Cars Is Not America. It's a Place Like Dubai.

Dubai self-driving
Dubai's downtown is among the world's most car-friendly.

Photo by Chris Jackson/Getty Images

The hotbeds of the nascent self-driving car industry today are places like Mountain View, California, home of Google, and Pittsburgh, where Uber and Carnegie Mellon University both have research hubs. Driverless cars already dot the streets there, giving residents a glimpse of the probable future in which fleets of commercial driverless vehicles share the road with human drivers.

Will Oremus Will Oremus

Will Oremus is Slate’s senior technology writer. Email him at will.oremus@slate.com or follow him on Twitter.

I say “probable future” because, as inevitable as Silicon Valley technologists and prognosticators make it seem, it is still not a given that the American public and government will accept a world in which hordes of vehicular robots share the road with human drivers, even if all the still-daunting technological hurdles can be surmounted.

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And yet it’s looking increasingly likely that mass adoption of commercial driverless cars will happen somewhere, even if that somewhere isn’t the United States.

For instance, it could happen in a place like Dubai.

The AP reported last week that the emirate’s leader has called for driverless vehicles to account for 25 percent of all trips on its public streets by the year 2030. Dubai has struck a deal with a French company called EasyMile to allow tests of its boxy, 10-passenger autonomous vehicle, the EZ10, on local roadways. And it is promoting a video of an autonomous concept car that looks like a Tesla Model S to get residents excited about the possibility of being ferried around by cars with no one in the driver’s seat. (It isn’t a real Tesla, and the carmaker has not announced any plans to expand sales to Dubai.)

That 2030 target would be pretty ambitious for a country as vast and diverse as the United States. Obama’s Department of Transportation does support the development of autonomous vehicle technology, and it recently mapped out a plan to create designated testing corridors around the country. However, this prudent approach is not likely to lead to rapid nationwide adoption.

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For a city-state such as Dubai, however, 25 percent by 2030 seems like a target that should be relatively easy to achieve. For one thing, Dubai has the advantage of being both small in area and geographically homogeneous.

The hardest thing about building fully driverless cars for a market like the United States is ensuring that they have the capability to perform equally well in every conceivable driving situation. They have to navigate not only Mountain View and Pittsburgh, but the gridlock of Midtown Manhattan, the single-lane covered bridges of the rural Midwest, and the forested dirt roads of the Appalachians. They have to work in rain, snow, and fog.

In a place like Dubai, however, much of that isn’t necessary. There are some adverse conditions, such as heat and fog, and the urban roads can be heavily trafficked. But by and large, it’s a very car-friendly place: The streets are relatively well-paved and marked, and they aren’t as clogged with unpredictable bicycle, pedestrian, or rickshaw traffic as those of many other big cities around the world. It never snows, and it rains just 25 days a year. Oh, and the government is an absolute monarchy that can more or less impose its will on the populace.

In short, if driverless cars can work anywhere, they can probably work in Dubai. And if they do work in a place like Dubai, that makes them less likely to be a technological dead end, even if they suffer serious setbacks in the United States and elsewhere.

Previously in Slate:

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